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Apple’s iPhone Crackdown Is A Marketing Stunt—But A Good One


The government claims Apple’s refusal to help unlock a terrorist’s phone is a marketing stunt. Of course it’s a marketing stunt, but that doesn’t mean Apple is wrong.

Over the last year or so, Apple has tried to promote itself as the champion of its customers’ privacy. They won’t track you, they won’t sell your information, and now they won’t help the government invade your privacy, either.

Apple’s stance on preserving privacy is partly motivated by the photo leaks of 2014. Hackers stole hundreds of photos of celebrities from Apple’s cloud storage and posted them all over the Internet. Many of these photos featured celebrities in various states of undress, but the victims weren’t the only ones embarrassed. The tarnished Apple faced questions about its security, which they answered by adding new authentication measures to iOS and iCloud.

The controversy over Syed Farook’s iPhone is a double blessing for Apple. First, they get the chance to publically reiterate their commitment to their customers’ privacy. They won’t help the government open Farook’s iPhone, because they don’t want to create the ability to allow the government, or anyone else, to open your iPhone.

Embedded in this controversy is the second blessing. The government and the media are doing Apple’s advertising for them by telling America that the new authentication measures work. If you use an Apple product, your data is secure. Apple stands on the moral high ground promoting a citizen’s right to privacy, and the FBI’s inadequacy proves that Apple’s method of securing that privacy works.

Apple’s Offense Against Google and Facebook

But this isn’t just Apple versus the government and would-be hackers. Apple’s reluctance is to unlock the iPhone is one tactic in the three-way war between Apple, Google, and Facebook for the heart of the Internet.

Both Facebook and Apple want to keep you off the Web where Google and its ads reign supreme.

It would seem these three tech giants wouldn’t be in direct competition with each other. Apple is a hardware company, Google is a search and software company, and Facebook is a social media company. But the lines have blurred over the years.

Apple’s iPhone has kept people off the Web by locking its customers into an ecosystem of apps. The less time people spend surfing the web, the less money Google makes from search and advertising. Google responded by developing Android and moving into the hardware market with their Chromebooks and Nexus phones. They created their own ecosystem designed to be more advertising-friendly so as to continue to line their coffers.

Then Facebook’s user-base exploded, and Facebook began competing directly against Google for ad dollars. Google tried to sideline the Facebook threat by incorporating Google Plus into its network of free services, and Facebook developed a Facebook phone. Both products were disappointments.

Apple created Siri; Google responded with Google Now. Apple returned fire with its own maps program, hoping to erode Google’s dominance in that area. Recently, Facebook has made another sortie against Google by incorporating news items directly into its user interface, and Apple has integrated ad-blocking software into its iOS to improve its customers’ experience. Both Facebook and Apple want to keep you off the Web where Google and its ads reign supreme.

To Google and Facebook, You’re the Product

Who’s the good, who’s the bad, and who’s the ugly in this three-way showdown? Should we care one way or another how these tech wars get waged?

Both companies work tirelessly to integrate themselves into every aspect of a person’s interaction with the Internet.

People tend to like using Google products and Facebook because they’re free. I still remember the old days of Facebook, when panic would sweep through the site as rumors spread among the users that Facebook planned to start charging. I also remember the griping every time Facebook updated its user policies. In those days, privacy eroded faster than the Louisiana coastline.

Google plays the same game, tracking every digital bit of information about its users. Both companies work tirelessly to integrate themselves into every aspect of a person’s interaction with the Internet. They store all that information about you and me and everyone else, and they run it through endless algorithms in an attempt to think our thoughts before we think them. We let them do these things because they promise to one day offer us a Nirvana-like user experience in which we’ll have all the benefits of the Internet without any of the hard work of thinking. But don’t be fooled. It’s not really about us.

From the point of view of Google and Facebook, users aren’t the customers; users are the product they sell to their real customers—the corporations that pay them money. People are cows, and Google and Facebook are the dairies. All that data they collect? It’s like getting feedback from the cows on how to develop a more comfortable and efficient milking machine. But in the end we’re still just cows.

Apple Doesn’t Want to Be Google

Apple has gone in a different direction, trying to maintain a perspective in which the user and the customer are the same person. Customer satisfaction and a positive user experience are the same thing, which is not the case with Google and Facebook.

It would be a dangerous precedent if the government forced Apple to change its business model just to make the job of law enforcement easier.

Apple has seen what Google has done with its massive data collection, and it could have followed suit. But it decided to go in a different direction to distinguish itself from its biggest competitor. Apple realized some of us are a little uncomfortable with how well Google knows us. Apple’s apps won’t send every little thing you do with your device to Apple’s data warehouse, which means Apple’s apps probably won’t be as adept at reading your mind. Google’s Android will look things up for you a minute before you realized you wanted it to, but doesn’t that level of responsiveness crosses the line into creepiness?

But back to the FBI and the government. They love Google’s business model because Google has all the answers that they’re looking for. Just get a warrant and collect the data, because it’s all there. Apple is trying to stay out of that game. They don’t want to be at the FBI’s beck and call, rewriting their code and their policies whenever the FBI claims it’s necessary. It would be a dangerous precedent if the government forced Apple to change its business model just to make the job of law enforcement easier. Apple doesn’t want to be Google, and they shouldn’t be forced to be.

I think Apple’s arguments are sound. If the government gets the right to request this change, where does it end? This isn’t just about Apple, because if the government wins this fight, it will have the right to force any business to alter its business model in the name of national security. This is a privacy case, but it’s also about freedom to do business as one sees fit.

Is Apple’s commitment to privacy a marketing ploy? Yes, of course. But it’s a marketing ploy that those of us who care about privacy and freedom should encourage.